What we're watching – Freeway Series

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– The first of two series between the Braves and Red Sox kicks off with
a battle of Japanese starters, as Kenshin Kawakami and Daisuke
Matsuzaka will take the mound at Fenway tonight. Kawakami is 3-5 with a
4.54 ERA, but he hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in any of
this last eight starts and he’s 1-0 with a 1.38 ERA in his two
interleague starts to date. Dice-K, who had his last start interrupted
by a rain delay, is 1-4 with a 7.55 ERA. He could use a strong outing
to guarantee that he’s kept in the rotation following John Smoltz’s
return next week.

– A White Sox-Reds game doesn’t qualify as a banner matchup, but with Hawk Harrelson set to miss the game, at least one of the two teams could have a watchable broadcast for once.

That Jose Contreras was able to hold the Tigers and Brewers to three
hits over 16 scoreless innings in his last two starts suggests he’ll
have no problem tonight with a Reds team that has scored 35 runs in 13
games.

As expected,
Ryan Hanigan is back batting eighth tonight after raising his OBP to
.406 by reaching three times as a No. 5 hitter Thursday. Just what was
he thinking?

– After losing 3-2 on Wednesday and 3-0 on Thursday, the Yankees
will face a pitcher they’ve never seen before in a third straight game
as the Marlins thrown Sean West tonight. West, a 6-foot-8 left-hander,
will be making his sixth big-league start after going 2-1 with a 3.00
ERA in the first five. He is wild, but the league is hitting just .165
against him. Andy Pettitte will start for the Bombers.

Game of the Night

L.A. Dodgers and L.A. Angels – The Angels are taking a seven-game
winning streak into their series against the Dodgers, and they’ll have
the added boost of getting Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero back in
the lineup tonight. Still, it’s not likely to be easy to beat Chad
Billingsley, who is 3-0 this month and 9-3 with a 2.72 ERA for the
season. He is 1-2 lifetime against the Angels, but that comes with a
2.45 ERA in 22 innings. Seven-game winner Joe Saunders will get the
ball for the Angels.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.